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On Building Trust with North Korea
Saving North Korea is less riskier option in the long-term
Jae Young Lee (Ohmyjoshua)     Print Article 
Published 2009-07-09 12:04 (KST)   
It was expected that the year 2009 would bring rather smooth progress for the North Korean denuclearization process. The new United States President Barack Obama is unlike his predecessor, and the new US administration stressed that the "Six-Party Talks" and its bilateral talks with the North were effective approaches. These considerations were at least a breath of fresh air for the prospect of continuing nuclear disarmament of the North. Stunningly, Pyongyang did not cooperate with that hope.

On April 5, North Korea launched missiles, which Pyongyang claimed were satellites being put into orbit, and conducted its second nuclear test underground on May 25. None of these acts confer the North the formal recognition being of nuclear state status in any possible way; not even de facto recognition. They only confirm its potential. Even so, they clearly reveal Pyongyang's ambition to be a nuclear weapon holder. It seems that things are now much worse than any moments of crisis during the Bush years.

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If Pyongyang, instead of conducting its second nuclear test, had responded receptively to Washington's favorable gestures, it would have paved the way toward the normalization of its relationship with Washington and reaped other rewards. While Pyongyang's calculation behind those moves is mysterious, the other question which has arisen is whether Pyongyang was forced to make that move rather than strategically choosing it.

One argument claims that the North's underground nuclear test is a purposeful attempt to reinforce Kim Jong-il's political standing after he suffered a major stroke. Kim Jong-il's health crisis led to the post-Kim Jong-il regime which surfaced as the single most important issue in North Korean society. The leadership succession process seems to have already been initiated.

Unlike the first leadership change from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jung-il, this case holds far more serious issues for the North regime. The former leadership succession could have been readily accepted by the society because Kim Jung-il had already seized the power. This time, the leadership challenge came unexpectedly. Such a leadership vacuum is the most unwelcome situation in an autocratic society because it can collapse political stability. It is a plausible explanation that Pyongyang had resorted to nuclear weapons because it recognized a nuclear build-up as the only option left to address domestic challenges despite the possible cost of backlash from the outside.

However, even if this scenario were true, North Korea could have chosen to endure temporary instability because there are potential successors. The bottom line is that no matter how short the period of risk of political instability might be, the North cannot withstand, for even a short time, the enormous fear, which is caused by its distrust of the outside. Behaving out of distrust has always been part of North Korea's pattern of acts. In truth, that is how the North started to enter the path of nuclear development.

At the beginning of the 1990's, North Korea was facing extreme isolation as communism began to collapse. The communist countries chose to pursue economic reform, but North Korea did not choose to follow the trend. Instead, it chose nuclear might as a means to addressing international challenges, which was driven by distrust toward the outside.

It may look as though the "Six-Party Talks" came to a fruitless end, but if the framework could have functioned according to the principle, "Action for Action", in a way that created trust in relationships with North Korea (which had fallen into distrust), it would have increased the possibility of the North taking a different course of action. The US is held primarily responsible for the malfunction.

After the North shut down its nuclear reactors during the first stage of the denuclearization process (from March 2007 to July 2007), in exchange, the US promised to unfreeze North Korean assets in a Macao bank. It had also attained its obligations during the second stage, declaring its nuclear programs and disabling its nuclear reactors. However, further progress failed to occur.

The US demanded that the North accomplish some inspection measures that were not negotiated in writing. In addition to the inspection of nuclear facilities, a review of documents and interviews with technical people, the North was required to do "sampling" which would reveal information about how much plutonium had been processed previously.

The issue of sampling has marred former negotiations of the 1994 Agreed Framework. This demand was recognized by David Albright, nuclear weapons expert and former nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq, as "unacceptable to any country's sovereignty." It was inevitable that Pyongyang's trust of Washington evaporated.

Despite those circumstances, the relationship between the South and North has not been completely severed. The two Koreas have obviously reached the point of closing the Gaesung Industrial Complex. However, they have not left the negotiating table, though at this moment any practical outcome is unlikely to come about from their deadlocked relationship. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak once claimed there would be no gain for the North without complete denuclearization. The North has also showed no signs of giving in.

The point is that the North does not want to leave the table. It seems that a slight trust is binding the two Koreas together, even in the face of their current incompatible stances, because the two Koreas cling to potential benefits. This is trust in the truest sense. The past "Sunshine" efforts deserve some credit for this trust (the Gaesung Industrial Complex is a direct product of the engagement policy).

The Korea Policy Institute recently made a bold offer, the "Peace Treaty First" approach. It is an attempt to clear out the factors of distrust, establishing a foundation on which North Korea and its counterparts leave no room to raise questions about one another's legitimacy. The treaty will serve denuclearization by diminishing the uncertainties involved in future policies.

This offer may seem to impose a very heavy burden on Washington. However, South Korea, the US and other Six-Party partners should not drop efforts to rebuild North Korea's trust in any way. To do the reverse is definitely unacceptable. Although South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak has strenuously sought to isolate the North through the South Korean summit talks with the US and Japan recently, the US, China and Russia do not accept his moves, openly defending the belief that the Six-Party negotiation framework is the most probable path to denuclearization.

For the time being, the Six-Party countries need to allow the North to have time to deal with its internal issues. This may seem risky. However, the riskier option is to deplete any trust that the North holds, letting it accelerate its nuclear development. It is still possible that the Six-Party negotiations can slow the North셲 nuclear-related moves and to stop it from reaching the status of nuclear weapons power.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Jae Young Lee

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